Wolf Moon lunar eclipse kicks off penumbral quartet for 2020 (photos)

This composite image shows the progression of the partial lunar eclipse in Ankara, Turkey on Jan. 10, 2020. (Image credit: Ali Balikci/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Viewers in Asia, Australia, Europe and Africa were treated to a very subtle type of eclipse Friday (Jan. 10) — a penumbral lunar eclipse that just barely darkened the moon.

The Wolf Moon passed through the faint outer shadow of the Earth, which is called the penumbra, and made the moon's usual black, gray and white tones take on a tea-stained color. The eclipse took place over four hours starting at 12:07 p.m. EST (1707 GMT), with maximum eclipse occurring at 2:10 p.m. EST (1910 GMT).

"You can see this isn't an evenly illuminated full moon, but it's getting more and more difficult to see now," said Slooh astronomer Paul Cox around 3:30 p.m. EST (2030 GMT), during a live astronomy broadcast as the eclipse was nearing its last phases. 

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An airplane crosses in front of the Full Wolf Moon during the penumbral lunar eclipse on Jan. 10, 2020, in this photo taken by Stojan Stojanovski near Lake Ohrid in Macedonia. (Image credit: Stojan Stojanovski)

Cox pointed out the penumbral eclipse to viewers using a live telescope view of the moon, from the Canary Islands. "Down at the bottom right hand corner, about the 4:00 or 5:00 position, you can see it's just darker," he explained. "[The shadow] is not like the dark seas up above, but there is a slight shade, and there is a slight curvature to it."

A penumbral eclipse happens due to a slight misalignment between sun, moon and Earth. This type of eclipse needs two key ingredients: for the moon to be at the full moon phase (which it reached at 2:21 p.m. EST, or 1921 GMT) and for the three celestial bodies to come close to aligning — close enough for the moon to pass through the outer region of Earth's shadow, but not the central part of the shadow. 

The moon is seen during partial lunar eclipse over Istanbul, Turkey on Jan. 10, 2020.

(Image credit: Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

When the three bodies are more tightly aligned, more spectacular eclipses happen. Partial lunar eclipses occur when the moon passes into the deeper part of the Earth's shadow (known as the umbra), and total lunar eclipses — also known as Blood Moons — happen when the Earth completely blocks the sun's light from reaching the moon. During total eclipses, the moon only receives refracted light from Earth, turning the surface red.

A couple kiss as the Full Wolf Moon rises over the horizon at the beach on Jan. 10, 2020, during the first lunar eclipse of the year. (Image credit: Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty)

Solar eclipses, by contrast, have to do with how perfectly the moon covers the sun in the sky when it passes in between the sun and the Earth. If the moon partially crosses over the sun, a partial eclipse happens. If it perfectly aligns, a total eclipse happens — but only for a few minutes, until the moon's orbit moves it past the sun. (Always use proper safety equipment to view a solar eclipse.)

The Full Wolf Moon rises above the mountains near Kuratica, Macedonia, in this photo taken by Stojan Stojanovski on Jan. 10, 2020 before a minor penumbral lunar eclipse. (Image credit: Stojan Stojanovski)

If you missed this penumbral eclipse, you can catch three more opportunities in 2020: June 5, July 5 and Nov. 30. The last 2020 eclipse will have the deepest darkening of the trio. All four lunar eclipses in 2020 are of the penumbral variety; the next total lunar eclipse isn't until May 26, 2021. Check out our lunar eclipse viewing guide to check if your location will experience the eclipse. If not, you can always catch the show online at Space.com.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace

  • Andy(c)
    Question:Is anyone aware of anyone having been able to observe this penumbral eclipse, or any other penumbral eclipse, at or near sunrise or sunset? If so, would you have been able to distinguish it from any other full Moon without advance knowledge about the event, its precise timing, and what to expect?
    As for last night's penumbral eclipse, I was happy to experience perfectly clear skies while watching it six hours past sunset, high in the sky, from Sweden at 60 N 15 E, and at 6 Centigrades below freezing.

    Although I was trying my best to discern the darkening of the full Moon. I certainly would not have been able to distinguish this penumbral eclipse full Moon from any other full Moon without prior knowledge of this event. Even at that I cannot say with certainty that I noticed the difference, although I believe I did. This is my first attempt to observe a penumbral eclipse event, so I am not an experienced observer of such events, and in addition my vision is not as perfect as I would wish it would be.

    Because of my interest in ancient reports of celestial events, my above question is very important to me. So please, if anyone has any insight whatsoever that may in any way serve as an answer to my above question, kindly share with me whatever you may have!
  • sarajoanne
    oh shucks I missed it -looking at those pictures -what a sight!!!